Breaking Barriers: How this HR executive made the transition to COO in male-dominated industry
Niranjana Neelakantan, the chief operating officer (COO) and co-founder at Mumbai-based cold chain solution provider TESSOL, did her BTech in Electronics and Communication Engineering from Cochin University of Science and Technology in 2004 and then an MBA from Symbiosis Centre for Management and Human Resource Development (SCMHRD) in 2007.
Beginning her professional career as management trainee in Dr.Reddy’s, she moved onto consulting, engaging with multiple clients across pharma, logistics, social enterprise, IT, education, and telecom. A specialist in organisational design and growth for start-ups and small businesses, she joined TESSOL as their head of human resources (HR) and was instrumental in managing the pivot and turnaround of the firm in 2017.
The strategic and operational direction Neelakantan was able to bring to the firm, got her promoted to the role of head of operations at TESSOL wherein she brought significant improvements to the company’s bottom line and margins. Her exceptional contribution towards steering the firm during the Covid-19 pandemic was recognised by the organisation and she recently bagged the title of co-founder and COO at the firm.
In an exclusive interaction with People Matters, Neelakantan shares the experiences of her journey so far, of working during the pandemic and how she broke several myths in the male-dominated logistics and supply chain industry to rise to her present role .
Here are some excerpts from the interview
Having done your Btech in Electronics and Communication Engineering, how did you shift your focus to HR?
It’s not much of a shift in focus or rather, I never thought of it like that. I was born into a family of engineers and hence as a kid, I couldn’t see myself being anything but an engineer. My father is an Electronics & Communications engineer and so I decided to follow his footsteps.
I was very interested in businesses, even during my engineering days. Hence, the MBA was an obvious choice post my graduation.
I’ve also always been fascinated with people management, organisational development, and the idea of unlocking the people's potential for self and the organisation’s success. Hence the specialisation in HR.
Everything fell in place - I used the concepts I’ve learned in my engineering, my passion for HR, and hands-on experience of working with several start-ups in creating the engaging environment at TESSOL.
What was the shift like from HR leader to co-founder and COO in a challenging time like the Covid-19 pandemic?
It was anything but easy.
However, the seeds of the change were laid much before the pandemic. The HR leader role gave me a good perspective on all the aspects of the organisation - be it operations, finance, people, policies and others.
In my efforts to set up this system of people management, I understood all the functions and their working well, it also helped me build a rapport with most employees.
I was the only person in the system working closely with all functions and that visibility helped me see gaps in the system. I am a quick learner and don’t mind getting my hands dirty. This encouraged the organisation to give me multiple roles. I was more of a process architect for most functions I took up.
My MBA degree and a keen interest in the business also helped me add strategic value to the long-term vision of the business. Over a period of time, the contribution was recognised, and I was elevated to the role of COO and co-founder.
Would you like to share a few initiatives or programmes that you put into place as HR leader and COO now at TESSOL?
Our culture is one of openness and collaboration. Willingness to take initiatives and calculated risks is a quality we seek in all our employees.
In the initial years of joining the organisation, as an HR head, I had set up a few initiatives which we believed would drive and enforce these values. One of these was automation of all HR and admin activities. We also introduced multiple virtual platforms for collaboration and worked towards migration to a hybrid mode. This was, at that time, considered an unusual investment for an organisation of our size and nature.
In hindsight, I feel this helped make our transition to the online mode seamless when we needed to do so at the start of Covid. We did not lose anytime at the start of Covid to establish new processes and systems conducive to the virtual mode. Our employees were already very comfortable on multiple online platforms and that ensured our operations continued seamlessly in a hybrid mode for close to 2 years.
What are some of the soft skills that you think helped you make the transition? A few that you may need to further develop?
More than soft skills, I think it is important to understand what got me here and the need to keep strengthening it.
As an HR leader, I have seen the organisation from several vantage points. This helped me gain an understanding of each function and the trust of the people.
In short, one thing which I’d like to continue doing is to be connected to the ground. I firmly believe that a COO or a co-founder should never sit in their ivory towers. They belong to only two places, their people and clients. That’s where I belong and intend to be.
I’d like to also continue to stay true to one of our core values of being willing to learn, unlearn and relearn. I’d want to continue investing time in keeping myself updated with the upcoming trends in the clean tech industry. I feel this is important not only to ensure we are ahead of the game, but to also keep our passion for continuous innovation and upgradation alive.
What do you think your career path to this current position says about the wider career-pathing environment for current HR leaders?
The logistics and supply chain industry is predominantly a male bastion. The perception is that much of the routine activities in this industry are physically and emotionally highly intensive and hence unsuitable for women. I had the opportunity to break several myths here by becoming the COO and Co-founder of the leader in this space.
Once we stop thinking about HR as an event management and agony aunt function, we will start realising how vast the HR potential is. To me, HR is not a function; it is a mindset.
Think about this, HR is the only role you see in any department. People management can make or break organisations. My biggest recommendation to the HR leaders is to wear the hats of a business partner, stay connected with the ground and get visibility into each function. From a career path perspective, whether you become COO or move into any other function depends on your passion, but surely several doors will be opened for you to explore.
What are a few of your top priorities as you transitioned from HR exec to co-founder and COO?
As the leader in cold chain solutions, our processes need to be 100% streamlined and hyper-efficient. The first priority was to build on the existing processes and modernise them to prepare us for the next phase of growth. Our war cry was to engineer and deliver solutions that are 100% viable, reliable and sustainable. Since we had a great base, we could achieve this target in under a year.
As leadership, we strongly believe our team is our greatest asset and that our vision will be fulfilled only if our team puts their best foot forward.
We understand that today’s high-pressure environments can sometimes become overwhelming for employees. Hence employee wellbeing and safety is one of our top priorities. I monitor this personally through the multiple channels we have set up.
Despite our schedules, it is the leadership priority to be in touch with all employees and be always available for everyone in the organisation. We follow an open door, easy access policy. This subtly, but very powerfully also helps us build on the strong governance principles we’ve started the organisation with. As we grow, we will be exposed to new situations and my priority is to ensure that we don’t sacrifice our integrity for sustainability and our governance practices.